Windows 7 hits the streets Thursday, and with it something rather new from a recent Microsoft operating system: Positive reviews. Does this mean you should definitely update your OS — and maybe your entire system — just for the sake of embracing Windows 7? Or is this just another hypefest that will end in tears a la Windows Vista? We break it down in this buyer’s guide.
First thing’s first, Windows 7 isn’t a revolutionary new operating system, it’s just a remarkably solid and polished OS. While that means Windows 7 is wildly superior to the first incarnation of Windows Vista, it’s not a drop-everything-and-upgrade operating system. If your current PC is running to your satisfaction, there’s likely nothing in Windows 7 so jaw-dropping or productivity-enhancing that you’ll be compelled to replace your current OS or, more substantially, your complete system. Windows Vista, for all its faults, has been rounded into shape with Service Pack 3 and likely won’t give you any serious trouble in the near future. Windows XP will enjoy full Microsoft support until April 8, 2014, so there’s no reason to worry about upgrading your XP box anytime soon.
On the flipside, Windows 7 is such a well-designed operating system that there’s absolutely no reason not to choose it as your OS for any new Windows PC purchases, so long as the system you’re choosing can run Windows 7. On the latter point, Microsoft has been suitably chastened. Unlike the Windows Vista labeling fiasco — which saw several PCs rated as Vista-capable when they could only muster the strength to boot the OS, not run any applications and/or the Aero graphic interface — Microsoft is now allowing Windows 7 labels only on PCs that are actually up to snuff.
If you’re not set on buying a new Windows PC but aren’t satisfied with your current system’s performance, Windows 7 may offer enough new and shiny features to convince you its time for a upgrade. For those of you sticking with your current hardware but that are curious about upgrading your OS to Windows 7, you’ll need to start with the Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor. This is a downloadable utility from Microsoft that will gauge whether your current system configuration is compatible with Windows 7. Pay particular attention to any peripheral driver issues that the upgrade advisor raises, as some older hardware components (looking at you, ancient dot-matrix printer) won’t have Windows 7 drivers, and the manufacturers aren’t falling over themselves to write new drivers for out-of-production hardware. Microsoft has done a pretty good job ensuring that Windows 7 launches with adequate driver support, which wasn’t true for Windows Vista, but the upgrade advisor will tell you explicitly whether your gear is 7-rated or not. Even if you’re considering buying a new Windows 7-capable PC, running the Upgrade Advisor on your current system will let you know which old-school printers, scanners, cameras, etc. can come along for the ride.
What will be coming along for the ride is anything residing in your Windows or Program Files folders in your current Windows XP or Vista installation, provided you’re installing Windows 7 over these older versions of the OS. The Windows 7 installer preserves the contents of these folders and archives them in a Windows.old directory. It’s still advisable to do a full system backup before doing a Windows 7 install (our 2009 Backup & Recovery Software Buyers Guide can suggest a few utilities for the job), but Windows 7 goes out of its way to make this a somewhat unnecessary step.
So exactly what are the new and shiny features within Windows 7 that might convert you from uncertain upgrader to Windows 7 operator? Here are the highlights (with links to some Microsoft demo videos, so you can see the new features in action):
IMPROVED LOOK & FEEL
DirectX 11 – The next generation of Microsoft 3D graphics optimization engine, which all the crazy-good video games will use in the next few years. We’ve got an in-depth preview of DirectX 11, but suffice it to say that if you’re a devoted gamer who lives and dies by cutting-edge graphics, you’ll have to run Windows 7 sooner or later to enjoy your frag-fests at optimal awesomeness.
Enhanced Taskbar with Jump Lists – The first major visual change you’ll likely notice in Windows 7 is the new taskbar, which is conspicuously missing a traditional System Tray, Quick Launch area, or tabs for running applications. When you open an application, its shortcut icon appears on the taskbar rather than generating a Windows 95-esque taskbar tab. You can also “pin” an application to the taskbar so that its icon remains there whether you’re running the app or not. (Actively running applications are distinguished by a border around their taskbar icons.) Right-clicking a taskbar icon will display a Jump List of key functions within — or files recently opened by — the application. While this is quite a departure from the last 15 years of Windows taskbar interfaces, the result is both highly intuitive and surprisingly fast. You can usually open and operate applications in fewer clicks within Windows 7 than you ever could in Windows Vista or XP.
Revamped SuperFetch – Microsoft’s best prefetch implementation yet, the newest version of SuperFetch is the source of many of the “Windows 7 feels faster” anecdotes you’ve been hearing about. Objectively speaking, Windows 7 is measureably faster than Windows Vista, but once it’s booted, Windows 7 opens and switches applications with a startling breeziness. That’s because Windows 7 efficiently prefetches commonly used applications and data into a standby file. While the SuperFetch feature was actually implemented in Windows Vista, you can really feel it in Windows 7.
Aero Shake, Snap, Peek and Shortcuts– Windows 7 offers a host of keyboard shortcuts for launching, minimizing, maximizing, and arranging application windows. These are surprisingly well thought-out and implemented. Moreover, with Aero Shake, Snap and Peek, most of these same shortcuts are replicated using a few simple mouse gestures, making app window arrangement quick and easy once you get the hang of it. Along with the aforementioned SuperFetch and revamped Taskbar, this makes Windows 7 feel like a smoother, faster operating system.
ENHANCED FILE AND APPLICATION MANAGEMENT
Libraries – Windows 7 Libraries let you treat the contents of several folders as one virtual folder. For example, you could organize all your separate image folders into a single image library and manage all your pics through a single library list, while still preserving the original folder structure.
XP Mode – Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate have a full Windows XP emulator built in, so any XP-only applications can be run under Windows 7 with relative ease. Given that Windows XP had its own DOS/Windows 95 emulator, it’s theoretically possible for Windows 7 to run any Windows-based app published in the last 15 years, provided you’re willing to run a mode-within-a-mode emulators for the truly old stuff. Just be warned, XP mode just left beta, so there are likely a few quirks yet to be worked out.
HomeGroup – Create a filesharing group within your local network via HomeGroup, which is sort of like your own personal, localized peer-to-peer network. HomeGroup simplifies music, image, and document sharing while also making it easier to share printers and other peripherals within the same network. Think of it like a network within a network, which only you and your friends, family and/or coworkers can see and use.
Native Disk Image Handling – You no longer need third-party applications to handle ISO files and similar complete disk images. Simply right click any disk image file and a Burn Disk Image option will appear in the context menu.
Federated Search – When you search for files on your PC, you can include online resources as well, sort of like integrating Google…er, Bing search into your local file searches. If you don’t have the image or document you’re looking for, and online resource might.
SUPERIOR HARDWARE SUPPORT
True Multitouch – Until Windows 7, all multitouch support for touchscreens under Windows was derived from third-party add-ons (usually hacks). Windows 7 boasts true integrated multitouch support, which makes many touchscreen tablets and monitors far more useful.
Devices & Printers and the Device Stage – Devices & Printers is the new basic peripheral device handler in Windows 7, and it displays and controls basically any hardware device attached to your PC that isn’t the main keyboard, mouse and monitor. It greatly simplifies device handling, particularly for devices that you have to explicitly disengage before safely disconnecting (USB flash drives, for example). The Device Stage is one step up the complexity ladder, letting users easily handle complex peripheral like cell phones, MP3 players and multifunction devices like scanner/printer/fax combination peripherals. This is something previous versions of Windows haven’t handled well, but the Device Stage helps you and the operating system easily identify and your fleet of USB add-ons.
Enhanced Power Management – Windows 7 has a number of tweaks designed to maximize laptop battery life, including automatically dimming your screen if the PC has been idle and limiting processor-hogging background processes. These may not seem revolutionary, but any improvement on this front is a welcome change for frequent travelers.
Windows 7 isn’t poised to drastically change the world or your computing experience, but it is a very slick operating system. If you had to describe Windows 7 in one word, it would be “easier.” The whole OS just feels more polished, and Microsoft actually seems to be paying attention to the user experience with Windows 7, which is quite a departure from previous rollouts of the operating system. It may not motivate you to switch today, but when it comes time to upgrade or replace your PC, Windows 7 is without a doubt the mainstream OS of choice.